'Legacy lawsuits' bill heads to the House

04 18, 2012 by Daily Advertiser

Legislation to impel cleanup of pollution left behind by oil and gas drilling and production operations breezed through a House committee Tuesday over objections of landowners.

Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, said his HB618 calls for "the property to be cleaned up as soon as possible."

At issue is what are known as "legacy sites" — land polluted by oil and gas field waste left behind by previous lease holders. Current producers say they are being sued to clean up waste that's existed on property for decades.

Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, told the House Civil Law Committee "the environment has always been paramount to our members"» The industry respects the environment. Without this legislation, companies wanted to move in" and clean up sites "but courts have blocked them."

Abramson said one of the primary effects of his bill is that "the law currently is silent on the responsible party having immediate access to the property. It ought to be cleaned up as soon as possible."

But opponents of the bill, primarily representatives of large landowners, argue that if oil companies were so concerned about the environment, they wouldn't have polluted it in the first place or would have voluntarily cleaned it up without being sued.

Abramson's bill says that if a company admits liability in court, even for a portion of the damage, the Department of Natural Resources is to approve a "most feasible plan" to evaluate and possibly clean up the site, which would then be submitted to the court for approval.

Scott Sinclair, president of Tensas Delta Exploration Company in Shreveport, said he has faced four legacy lawsuits. He said because of a $4 billion liability shown in an audit, bankers are reluctant to lend money in Louisiana, so his company is doing business in Texas and Oklahoma.

The proposed law provides that an admission of responsibility for implementing the most feasible plan shall be admissible as evidence in any action.

"This must be about getting DNR's stamp of approval on the plan so it can be used in court to negotiate down the award," said Jimmy Faircloth, representing Roy O. Martin companies, Weyerhauser and the Louisiana Landowners Association, which together own millions of acres of land in Louisiana.

He said the bill is "giving the (oil and gas) industry the ability to lobby its way into the courtroom." He said that while he represents the landowners, the oil and gas industry has 50 lobbyists working the Legislature and Exxon has 11 of them.

Faircloth said that in approving the bill, the committee, which is chaired by Abramson, put the provisions in a separate portion of state law so there would be conflicting language dealing with legacy lawsuits.

He also questions a segment that says the courts "shall" consider the plan as evidence that the company wants to clean up a site.

"I'm not sure we can compel a district judge to do anything," Abramson said, which prompted Faircloth to ask why that language is in the bill.

He also argues that any changes in the law dealing with legacy sites should be heard in the Natural Resources


Abramson also has HB460 which provides civil procedures for the remediation of oilfield sites but since he submitted a substitute bill rewriting the legislation, he put off hearing it until next week.